A 'Taste of Southern Cooking', 30 Years Later
NEAL CONAN, host:
Edna Lewis wrote The Taste of Country Cooking 30 years ago to preserve the rich flavors of her childhood, but also to celebrate the place she came from, Freetown, Virginia. Former slaves, including her grandfather, bought the land and founded a vibrant farming community whose rhythms revolved around the crops they planted, harvested and transformed into dishes like green peas in cream, ham biscuits and fresh peach cobbler with nutmeg sauce.
For a time, Edna Lewis lived in New York City where she was the chef at Café Nicholson and later at Gage and Tollner. But she never strayed far from her Southern heritage and, over time, moved Southern cooking onto the nation's front burner.
Edna Lewis died earlier this year, but her classic cookbook turns 30 years old and has just been re-issued. Joining us now to tell us more about the legacy of Edna Lewis is Scott Peacock, her long-time friend and collaborator, the executive chef at the Watershed Restaurant in Atlanta, who's with us from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. Nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. SCOTT PEACOCK (Executive Chef, Watershed Restaurant, Atlanta): Great to be here, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: Southern cooking requires time to prepare, to cook, and to enjoy the food. When this book was first published back in 1976, the cooking industry was pushing TV dinners and fast food. I wonder how this book was first received.
Mr. PEACOCK: I think it was received very well. I was in grade school at the time, so I can't give a first-hand account. But I think it was recognized by some people as what it is; it's just - it's a terrific (unintelligible) and really an instruction guide back to a better way of life.
CONAN: Well, she wrote this cookbook as if she was telling a story, and every meal seemed to come with an event attached to it.
Mr. PEACOCK: Yes. The menus are beautiful. They're, you know, lunch at wheat-threshing time and even certain things like hog-killing time which you would not think as being so wonderful, but when she describes it it's very, very poetic. And she talks about Sunday revival dinner and mid-summer's Sunday breakfast. Everything does paint a picture of life from her childhood. And it's really written from the perspective of an adult looking back on a childhood, which I think was a remarkable thing about her, that she was very, very wise, and there was nothing naïve or unsophisticated about her. She lived most of her life in New York and she didn't mess around, but she always held on to a certain innocence.
And there was a child-like wonder about the world and about cooking and food and people and nature in particular that always came through that - I don't know how she held on to that, but she did. And I think it was one of the most remarkable things about her was that girlish quality that she had.
CONAN: We're speaking with Scott Peacock about his friend, Edna Lewis. A 30th anniversary commemorative edition of The Taste of Country Cooking has just been issued, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I wanted to illustrate what you were just talking about. I wanted to read a bit of this, if you wouldn't mind.
Breakfast was about the best part of the day. There was an almost mysterious feeling about passing through the night and awakening to a new day. Everyone greeted each other in the morning with a gladness and a real sense of gratefulness to see the new day. It was as if a particularly beautiful morning; it was expressed in the grace. Spring would bring our first and just about only fish, shad.
It would always be served for breakfast. Soaked in saltwater for an hour or so, rolled in seasoned cornmeal and fried carefully in home-rendered lard with a slice of smoked shoulder for added flavor. There were crispy fried white potatoes, fried onions, batter bread, any food left over from supper, blackberry jelly, delicious hot coffee, and cocoa for the children. And perhaps, if a neighbor dropped in, dandelion wine was added. With the morning feeding of the animals out of the way, breakfast was enjoyable and leisurely.
Boy, I didn't have lunch all that long ago. I'm starving to death.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PEACOCK: It makes breakfast sound pretty good.
CONAN: It sure does. You and she produced together this cookbook, and you worked with her on recipes. I know there was another description. Alice Waters in the foreword describes an event, coming out for the Meals on Wheels cook-off; really a lot of celebrity chefs would come out and some of them would set up - she describes these assembly lines, some with prepared food. She describes you and Edna Lewis making pies one at a time by hand.
Mr. PEACOCK: Yes, that's right. And that's actually how we met, at an event similar to that in Atlanta. And, you know, Ms. Lewis knew exactly who she was and exactly what she did and nothing ever swayed her from that. And so other people would come in with their fancy brigades of cooks and equipment and lots of things pre-made at other restaurants, but for her it was all about the cooking and it was about the experience and really giving your very best.
I can remember some of those mornings we would - I would go in and pick her up at her apartment in New York around 6:00 in the morning, and we would go and have coffee for half an hour or so before we would begin to cook. And we would have cooked the whole day before, usually making some preparations for this, and she was tireless.
And the satisfaction - she enjoyed seeing people enjoy it and of course compliment her on the food, but it was just the process too and I think doing something the very best that she could do.
CONAN: We've posted some of the recipes from the book at our Web site. If you'd like to take a look at a couple recipes for steamed chicken and blueberry cake are at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.
I wonder, do you think she liked cooking best for herself and friends or in a restaurant?
Mr. PEACOCK: You know, that's a difficult question. I think she took satisfaction in it regardless, and I think she enjoyed having the platform because she believed so much in what she was doing. So I think she was, you know, grateful to have the opportunity to share her vision of food and her taste of cooking with the public. But I think she took just as much joy in boiling a pot of coffee in the morning as she did doing one of those great dinners at Rockefeller Center, or anywhere for that matter.
CONAN: What do you think her legacy is?
Mr. PEACOCK: Oh, I think it's many things to many people, but I think it's - there's such a purity in her approach to cooking and also that reflects into life and just the values that she held were - came through in everything she did. But I think she was among the early ones.
I mean, Alice Waters is wonderful about saying that. I mean, she came before Alice and really helped to pave the way for this approach to food that it's healthy and wholesome and there's an immediacy with the seasons. And I think anyone who appreciates good cooking in general owes a debt of gratitude to Edna Lewis.
CONAN: There's that maxim mentioned in this book. What grows together goes together.
Mr. PEACOCK: Yes.
CONAN: There's some wonderful meals in here. Did you get a chance to enjoy a lot of them yourself?
Mr. PEACOCK: Oh, absolutely. I was very grateful - I mean, very fortunate. I'm very grateful to have been so fortunate. We were friends for almost 17 years, and the last 7 years we lived together. And I was thinking on the drive to the station today just remembering summers with her perched on a riverbank sort of coaching me on the best way to harvest watercress and watching her peel tomatoes. And we would put up brandied peaches together and of course, you know, hand-churning ice cream together.
Yes, I was very, very fortunate. Her cooking was remarkable that the recipes, as wonderful as they are, don't quite do it justice.
CONAN: Scott Peacock, thanks very much, and thank you for sharing your recollections of your friend and collaborator.
Mr. PEACOCK: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: Scott Peacock is executive chef of Watershed Restaurant in Atlanta, a long-time friend and collaborator the late chef Edna Lewis. Her classic cookbook, A Taste of Country Cooking, has been re-issued this year. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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